The Courage of the Bat Mitzvah Girl
If you live a spiritual or religious life, there are times when sad, untimely events strike you so hard you want to throw up your hands in rage and ask WHY? But if you live a spiritual or religious life, you are given the coping tools that make you realize that sometimes we don’t have the luxury to question and mope, but instead answer through acts of kindness through the community.
And how do we respond as a community? We mourn. We sing. We dance.
A Bar or Bat mitzvah is a major milestone in a Jewish 12 or 13 year old’s life. It is the first day they are counted by the community as a Jewish man or woman, even if by contemporary standards they are still too young to vote or drive. And in the joy of planning and all the silly details – the guest list, the centerpieces – it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning of the day. But in these silly little details, there is so much joy in planning your child’s coming-of-age occasion for moms and dads. This is how it’s supposed to be.
But life doesn’t always go as it is supposed to be.
We got Stephanie’s simple yet stylish pink and brown Bat Mitzvah invitation in the mail. Though her parents were long divorced, though her mother was not Jewish, mom and dad’s names were both on the invitation. Their names stood together for the first time in perhaps many years in celebration of the daughter they raised who was now about to become a Jewish woman.
Just days later, we learned that the Bat Mitzvah girl’s mother died of cancer.
How does a community come together? We do so in mourning.
How do you enter the house of a girl who is supposed to be excited about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah instead of mourning the death of her mother? You enter it very quietly, brushing off your shoes as best as you can from the latest Western New York snowstorm. You nod but don’t smile to the people in the crowded living room, some of them there to mourn the passing of their own parents. Parents who died when they were in their 50’s and 60’s. Not at age 12.
Stephanie sat quietly near her father and the rabbi, but was soon accompanied by her friends, my daughter among them. My daughter had become a Bat Mitzvah just the year before. I thought about what I was doing five weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I thought about the unfairness of it all.
Then, the rabbi began the service. When it was time to recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the mourner, it was not the time to shake our heads and ask why. Sometimes there are no answers or explanations. There is not the question “why” but “what are you going to do about it?” And almost telepathically, we just knew. Instead of one voice, many voices uttered these ancient words. Voices of her teen friends who stood by her, to put arms around her. Voices of the older members of the congregation, who carried her small mourner voice in theirs.
After kaddish was over, there was silence. And then,
“Hey, well, we have a lot of coffee and cake, so can I offer anyone some?”
Stephanie managed a cheerful voice, trying to break the sadness in the room with an offer of coffee and cake. A child who had just lost her mom was not crying but offering us the good deed, or the mitzvah of hospitality.
How do we act as a community? We sing.
Five weeks later, Stephanie sat poised and beautiful on the bimah, (pulpit) on her big day. I had the honor of sitting next to her for a bit as I waited for my turn to read from the Torah.
“I’m really nervous,” She whispered.
“It’s okay. That’s perfectly natural,” I said, trying to still my own fluttering heart. “Do you know I get nervous every time I read too? Just take deep breaths and know that everyone in this room loves you….. And by the way I just love your earrings!”
One compliment on the tiny blue rose earrings that adorned her lobes got a smile, and then she was ready.
She did her Torah reading and it went off without a hitch. Then, it was time for the reading of the prophets, or the Haftarah. This is usually a much longer, solo chanting. Unlike being surrounded by clergy and congregants when reading from the Torah, reading the Haftarah can seem like a long, lonely walk.
Stephanie’s sweet voice held through until about the last few sentences. Then, as she anticipated that the hard work was almost over, she slipped. A slight mispronunciation of a word. A wrong note. If you have ever missed a line in a play or forgotten the lyrics of a song you are singing during the performance, you know that feeling of absolute unraveling. But under the circumstances, it was a completely normal and almost healthy unraveling.
Perhaps it was the slight error that threw her. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that her mom was looking down on her from heaven instead of with her on Earth from here on in that finally caught up with her, but it all seemed to come to a head. At that very moment, before the whole congregation, Stephanie dissolved into tears. And there were still a few paragraphs to go, the blessings after reciting the Haftarah.
Sometimes people say they don’t like going to church or synagogue because they don’t know how or what to feel. Or, they don’t understand the Hebrew. But on that Shabbat (sabbath) morning, there wasn’t one dry-eyed soul there that didn’t know what to feel. Or what to do.
We were not going to let this young lady falter. Not on her first day of being a Jewish adult. So, one by one, we stopped our own crying enough to give her our voices. We sang those final blessings right along with her. Without a cue from the rabbi. Without the consensus or a vote or a ritual committee meeting. We just knew what to do. And it was perhaps the most powerful moment – more powerful than any rabbi’s sermon or cantor’s reciting of the Yom Kippur prayers – this sanctuary had witnessed in a very long time.
How do we act as a community? We dance?
When you are a guest at a Jewish party, you have a job to do. You have to add joy to that room to increase the joy of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid, or a bride and groom. And you do it by dancing. That night, we whirled and danced as much as we could. Because we were truly happy for Stephanie and so grateful for the lesson she taught us that day about courage and community.
*the names of those who I mentioned in my blog have been changed.